Building An Engineering Culture

Discussing the art of continuous learning and reinvention of teams and leaders in a rapidly evolving industry.
Anthony Sochan
January 17, 2019

We invited a group of Technology leaders from Sydney’s most progressive businesses to share thoughts, stories and ideas on building engineering organisations. Over breakfast we discussed the art of continuous learning and reinvention of teams and leaders in a rapidly evolving industry, plus the implications on culture and decision making ability.

“A level of maturity and scale exists within the Australian tech ecosystem, that wasn’t here five years ago.”

Opening the conversation was Daniel Nadesi, who recently returned to Sydney after seven years in New York working for Google Photos. Daniel remarked upon the fantastic recent progress as demonstrated by the number of venture capital funds, startups and CTO positions.

Given the shift towards later and larger investments, what are the implications on the engineering team and as leaders, how has the engineering organisation evolved and what does the future look like? A number of themes emerged including the evolution of team culture, how to hire and build flexible teams, and failure as a basis for learning.

“What does good engagement looks like? How do you transmit culture?” – Yaniv Bernstein, VP Engineering, Airtasker

As businesses scale, the balance of “moving fast” and the introduction of process and structure is often conflicting. Does adding levels of management sacrifice decision making speed, autonomy and empowerment? How do you ensure that individuals and teams are given enough attention, recognition and development when scaling?

Christopher Logan from Deputy believes that “the more levels of decision making, people feel less empowered” acting as a strong proponent for flat structures over adding in “middle management”. Perhaps it is a question of scale, perhaps we can try to define tipping points. No doubt the quality of the team, company culture and senior leadership have a part to play and as Ted (Tencza) from Prospa rightly points out, “you can’t copy and paste culture.” Ensuring that engineering “identifies with product” enables individuals and teams to align and achieve goals.

Re-writing the job description – from skill based to behaviour based

Job descriptions are becoming increasingly varied depending on skill and behaviour. Which outweighs the other when hiring the right candidate? David Jablonski from Cluey Learning believes that “part of the problem is that schools and universities teach specific coding languages versus how to solve problems.”

Whilst learning a certain coding language is important, it’s more important for the engineer to be a real problem solver and it’s important at interview stage to find out how they would identify, break down and solve a potential problem.

When scale-ups are changing so quickly, a focus on a “mastery of the fundamentals” and the right behaviours should be paramount in order to build a cohesive and adaptable team. These fundamental skills enable them to be more adaptive, so if your tech stack changes for whatever reason, the engineer doesn’t suddenly lose their value because they no longer know the language.

The question now is, how do we shift the mindset of non-technical leaders and those within recruitment functions to get comfortable hiring on less tangible aspects of an individual?

Throwing out the rule book

With best practices being out of date almost instantly, “people are struggling to keep up – as individuals and as an industry” (Yaniv). With popular methods remaining cult-fiction versus as documented best practice (e.g. The holy grail Spotify Model), what can we take as gospel and form as a foundation for knowledge and subsequent action?

One of the key problems currently is, “talent shortage extends to leadership, it’s up to us to generate and shape the next generation of leaders” (Nadasi). How should engineering leaders be thinking about building a successful team in the long-term and promoting the right behaviours?

“Having been in the game a long time, these “modern” frameworks have been seen before. The value of documenting processes and frameworks cannot be overstated, but you must have the time and the discipline to build on it.” – David Jablonski

James Brett recently interviewed over 40 tech leaders for his book “Evolving Digital Leadership”. Asking them what they would like in a book, most did not want a textbook – recognising that no book can give someone the answer to all of their questions.

If we throw out the rule book – how do we become true masters of anything? Who and what do we learn from?

Salvador Dali, as Chris Logan explains, “studied every other great artist and concept and become a master of everything.” Become an expert in all disciplines and understanding how all things work, leads to evolution.

Yaniv explains, “you can always find a genius to support your theory. For example many leaders try to emulate Steve Jobs, but without his exceptional talents they often just end up copying his less admirable characteristics.” Build a team around you who master in different things – learn from them all and you’ll have not only more skills but a more flexible mindset.

The future of engineering teams

In a rapidly changing landscape, it’s clear that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to building and scaling a tech team, with every leader having differing views and experiences on how to enable for success and growth. With so many guides, tips and methods to building and scaling a team, it’s important to develop your own style and methodology, but it’s clear there are certain key factors that are more likely to set you up for success.

It seems the key thing is to understand the stage of growth you’re going through and to build a team who are able to adapt and overcome the many problems you will encounter in a rapidly growing business. Problems will always be an inherent part of a business like these, and naturally hard to predict, but if you can build a culture and team that understands these problems will arise and are able to break them down and work through them methodically, then you’re setting yourself on the best possible trajectory as you continue to grow.

Anthony Sochan

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